We’re talking about how to approach the first draft of your novel this month, in honor of NaNoWriMo, Last week we talked about the 3 Essential Guidelines for your overall novel, and the week before that we talked about Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo. And today we’re going to be talking about the protagonist’s character, because that’s the core of all storytelling. (I tackled this topic in 4 Post-Its to Stick Up Over Your Writing Desk, and I outlined the basic elements—which I’m going to talk about in greater depth below—in a series on how to write fiction wrong: How to Characterize Wrong in 3 Easy Steps.)
But, honestly, you don’t have to be doing NaNo to be starting a novel. If you’ve got holidays coming up in December, you might very well be getting yourself in gear to take advantage of them in the most luxurious way a writer can imagine: by writing!
Your protagonist believes they cannot survive without this
It’s a need so core to them that if you changed it you wouldn’t be writing about a human being anymore. What is it? Writers have been using the canonical primary needs for hundreds of years without wearing them out:
Truly, these three needs have powered most of the fiction ever written. And there are still more aspects to explore in them. They’re that enormous. They’re that complex.
Some of the other things characters need are:
- to protect a child
- to heal a wound
- to learn the truth
- to have an adventure
These needs also have powered incredible numbers of stories. Remember Don Quixote? Out there scampering around the countryside on that mangy old nag with his reluctant sidekick at his stirrup? What was he up to?
He certainly wasn’t defending his life. And I don’t think he ever really had a chance with Dulcinea.
He needed them really badly.
Your protagonist can’t survive without this either
Because that’s what makes a story: two needs. Otherwise, it’s a bildungsroman, the story of a protagonist grappling with a whole series of internal conflicts, and modern readers don’t have the attention span to survive a bildunsroman anymore. They need explicit signposts on why they should care. (I’m sorry, Moll Flanders.)
But here’s the magic wand—you’ve already done this step. Yes, you have! Look above. How many stories are about two of those top three in conflict with each other? What if you mixed and matched two out of the seven? One of the seven with some equally-powerful but more subtle need?
- to prove a point
- to accomplish a lifelong goal
- to protect someone elderly (or otherwise physically or intellectually vulnerable)
- to escape evil
- to come to grips with their own dark side
You’ll notice that, no matter how subtle a secondary need you give your protagonist, it can pretty much always be traced back to one of those three canonical primary needs. And when you choose not to root your protagonist’s character in a secondary need quite that canonical, for whatever reason, you must add motivation to that subtle need through one of the canonical ones.
Also, although experts once swore mysteries were too ‘intellectual’ to accommodate romance, pretty much any story gets better when you add thwarted love to the mix.
Your protagonist has absolutely no intention of choosing between the two
Which means any situation in which they are forced to do just that serves as a rip-roaring, roof-raising, mind-bending catastrophe for your Climax. As country singers are so fond of reminding us, “My baby left me, I lost my home, and then my dog died.”
Say you have a protagonist who needs:
Whomever they love, it puts them in danger. In danger of losing their job? In danger of losing their home? In danger of losing their sanity?
When Jane Eyre had to choose, she lost all three. Well, she wasn’t totally plugged in to begin with, but I really don’t think that night on the moor could have helped much.
Pit your protagonist against themself by giving them the two most fundamental needs in the human animal. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, either. It could be love of a friend, love of a place, love of a cause.
Romantic love has the added attraction of sex, of course, which always gets the attention of the hormonally-bullied. (You know who you are.) Just keep in mind—and this is really important—you must address sexual issues through their grip on the personality rather than through simple textbook instructions. Your reader doesn’t need to learn how to do it. They need to learn how to handle the consequences when they indulge in something they know how to do all too well.
Or say your protagonist needs:
Their pursuit of justice does nothing but put their life in danger. You know what that is?
Every thriller ever written.
This is why thriller works so well as series genre. Because you can pit your protagonist against themself through their need for justice—and the evil perpetrators’ efforts to kill them—over and over and over again until Doomesday and never run out of excitement.
Be aware that thrillers get their layering through complicated technical subjects, so the authors of thrillers do a great deal of research into specific industries: law, politics, banking, history, international espionage, high-tech weaponry, et cetera, plus very often exotic locales. That all needs to be professionally-researched and very adroitly handled. For advice on how to use your research properly, read Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel, in which she explains exactly how she used her research for eleven ghostwritten books, eight of which were best sellers.
Or maybe your protagonist needs:
What would force a person to choose between what they want and what they know is right? Well, almost everything. Anne of Green Gables tells us all about it as she works her way through her daily life—the endless, excruciating decision-making process that never leaves us alone. It’s when she has to choose between the things she loves and the things she knows are right that she becomes important to the reader, someone they will carry with them internally for the rest of their life.
Because such stories don’t have death hanging over anybody’s head, they tend to be more mild-mannered. That allows them to go deeply and profoundly into the human experience. Remember that your reader is reading not only to be reassured that life is worth living, but to learn something they don’t already know. If you choose to pit your protagonist against themself through these two very human (but not dastardly) needs, you’ll have to know something about those needs that the reader can’t figure out for themself. Just reiterating an experience identical to the reader’s own without adding anything original won’t hold their attention.
- Say you have a protagonist who needs:
You can see how this simple pyramidal design gives you a protagonist your reader passionately wants to see succeed, even as you back that protagonist into worse and worse corners until you’ve backed them right against a wall.
Then your protagonist must always, in the Climax, choose. That choice is the secret ingredient that makes your story work.
This, my friends, is what we call sympathetic character.